“I remember this one guy who was cruising me so hard at the bar!” I’m talking with Mike, a gay guy living in Ottawa with HIV. “We started making out and he was all over me — kissing, licking, sucking. So we got back to my place and I’d left my bottles of pills out and when he saw them he freaked. He made a face like this…” Mike mimics a locked jaw, clamped down grimace. “He didn’t even want to kiss anymore, despite that he’d been licking me up and down at the bar. And kissing is no risk!”
The sexual side of HIV stigma can be obvious, but other sides of HIV paranoia play out every single day in the life of any person living with HIV. It affects who gets jobs in our city, who finds apartments, who gets laid, who does or doesn’t get meds, who lives and dies in Canadian prisons, which immigrants get into the country, which children are teased at school, and more. And it doesn’t just affect positive folks. It’s a huge part of the homophobia that excludes all gay people. It stands in the way of the queer community’s access to the quality jobs, homes, and liberated lives that will make all of us healthy — including HIV-positive people.
“People need more education about HIV and a willingness to stop segregating HIV-positive guys within the gay community,” Mike says. “We are the gay community! There’s too much gossip about who is or isn’t positive and too much paranoia about the virus. Yes it’s a serious illness but it’s actually pretty hard to share and we know how to prevent it — even when one guy is poz and the other guy is negative.”
So what’s the outcome of HIV stigma? “Poz guys are afraid to disclose their status because people reject us or treat us like we’re less than human. There’s little safe space to tell a guy your status and there’s a big risk of being tactlessly rejected if you do.” And that rejection extends beyond sex in the bar or the bedroom. “People don’t even want to know you, perhaps because they’re happier pretending HIV doesn’t even exist in our community.”
But it does. Mike laughs at the thought of urban gay men who claim they don’t know anyone positive. He says it’s as absurd as straight people who claim they don’t know anyone gay in Ottawa. “Of course you do! Are all your partners HIV negative? Really? If you live downtown and you go to gay spaces and you hook up, then you definitely know and are having sex with HIV-positive guys.”
The outcome of all that fear and rejection is isolation. Loneliness. HIV-negative dudes are cutting themselves off from men like Mike. Men who are sexy, wise, experienced, and full of vitality. They’re cutting themselves off from rewarding relationships with potential friends, lovers, family, and community. At the same time, HIV-positive men are being marginalized from a community they have equal claim to. Many of them are or have been the radical trailblazers who transform Ottawa and Canada into safer places for all of us. And in the end, loneliness and isolation both lead to yet more HIV infections and harder lives for those already positive. HIV stigma literally sucks the life out of the gay community.
So what can we do? What could that guy have done differently instead of losing his hard on for Mike after seeing those bottles of pills? Mike has answers. “Start by assuming responsibility for your own health. It isn’t the job of HIV-positive guys to take care of you or to keep you safe.” You’re entitled to not use condoms, to not ask when your partner was last tested, to smoke tina and party hard — but know that those choices belong to you, not your partner.
Second, learn the facts about HIV. Know what sexual acts are high, low, or no risk. “I don’t want to have to educate the world,” Mike says, “especially before sex.” Third, figure out your comfort level around those factual risks. This choice is personal. It’s okay to be comfortable only with no risk activities like kissing or hand jobs. It’s also our right to be comfortable with high-risk activities like unprotected anal sex. But knowing what fits for you personally will prevent that harsh sexual freeze in the face of bottles of pills.
Fourth, find a few tactful ways to explain your comfort levels to a partner and practice saying them in advance. Seriously! Most poz guys tell me that it isn’t someone’s boundaries that hurt them, but the insensitive ways they’re expressed. So if you’ve thought it through and you know that even protected anal sex with a positive dude is outside your comfort level but sucking dick without eating his cum is still cool, consider how you’d communicate that respectfully in the heat of the moment.
Something like, “I don’t know if I’m ready to think about fucking with you yet, but it’d get me rock hard if you keep thrusting your cock down my throat like that. And lemme know when you’re gonna cum so I can see it shoot all over my chest.”
The AIDS Committee Of Ottawa believes that eliminating stigma against HIV-positive folks will reduce the number of new HIV infections and will make life better for every single queer in our city. That’s something to celebrate, so we’ve decided to throw a fucking righteous party to say, “HIV discrimination is bullshit!” If you believe everyone — positive or not — deserves to live free of HIV stigma, come party with us at The Living Room Dance on Jun 29 at 9pm. Check your bias at the door!